Title: Theatrix Authors: David Berkman, Travis Eneix, Andrew Finch, Anthony Gallela Creator: Backstage Press 144 pages Product Rating: 2 (**) Game Play Rating: 3 (***)
Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2002 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John
Theatrix is a heavily cinematic game, which is primarily diceless but includes an optional dice-using resolution system. It is designed for a very dramatic style of play, where the players and the GM are both trying to create a fun and interesting story. Theatrix constantly uses metaphors from theater and film for its mechanics and advice: players are termed "Actors", while the GM is the "Director", and much more. Beyond terminology, though, there are many unique features to the rules compared even to other dramatic and/or diceless systems.
Overall, I consider Theatrix to be a valuable experiment. It is overly broad and ambitious, trying to be a universal system with no particular genre. As a result, creating a campaign is essentially systemless in most ways. However, it does touch on some vital ideas for running dramatic games in particular genres -- and I recommend it as reading for many types.
Theatrix is a 144-page book with a glossy color cover and is printed in black and white in the interior. The interior art is done in a mix of comic styles, ranging in quality from fair to truly awful. There is a detailed table of contents but no index. Each chapter includes a single-page summary at the end, though. Overall, the layout is marginally professional but nothing more.
It includes a set of 8.5x11" color cardstock game aids: four flowchart diagrams of the mechanics, and a color character sheet.
Theatrix is based around a style of play quite distinct from those assumed in other games. In some ways, there are many tendencies of how gamers fudge or design in other games, which are an explicit part of the rules in Theatrix. Notably, if (in the GM's opinion) the plot requires a certain result, then that result happens regardless of PC skill or conditions. So a PC has zero chance to, say, kill the master villain early by the normal resolution rules. This is balanced by giving the players great power over other parts of the game.
Theatrix suggests that the GM should design a structured adventure which is solidly based in the motivations of the characters. The adventure design includes key scenes for the beginning, development, and climactic conclusion. This is closely based on movie screenwriting theory, breaking the adventure up into three acts. The GM judges the action based on the needs of the plot and the abilities of the PCs, occasionally using the included flowcharts as decision aids.
The players are encouraged to use Improvisation, which is Theatrix's term for the players declaring facts about the game-world. For example, rather than asking the GM if there is a gun in the drawer, the player simply states that she pull the gun from the drawer. Players may use Improvisation at any time, but the GM can negate the effect of Improvisation in some circumstances, though she is encouraged to maintain continuity. However, the players also have Plot Points which they can spend for automatic success in certain endeavors (based on their character) or to guarantee the truth of improvised statements. I will go over this in more detail in the "Improvisation & Plot Points" section below.
Character creation in Theatrix is a mix of a certain dramatic meta-mechanics, and freeform setting of some curiously "old-fashioned" character stats (i.e. attributes and skills on a 1-10 scale).
The real heart of character creation is character descriptors. Each PC explicitly has a primary niche and set of schticks that are central to her. For example, a starship engineer might have his job ("Starship Engineer") as a Primary Descriptor, along with a few other Descriptors. This gives the player special power over anything related to engineering. He can spend a Plot Point to have his character succeed at any engineering task. However, he also is required to spend a Plot Point for each scene in which his engineering is dramatically useful. In addition, he has special priority in declaring Statements related to engineering. For example, the character could say "Luckily Sathar engines don't work within 0.5 AU of the sun, while human engines do" -- and the player spends a plot point to make that statement true.
Personality traits are required for character creation, and they are more directly involved in play than in most other RPGs. Specifically, if a personality trait is related to an action, then you can spend a Plot Point for an automatic success. In addition, you may sometimes be required to spend Plot Points to perform certain actions. The GM may require you to spend a Plot Point, say, to active "Brave" when you are faced with overwhelming fear. If you lack a "Brave" or similar trait, then you would have to spend two Plot Points to do this. Players are free to determine their personality traits as they wish, and rate them in three steps (Moderate, Strong, Extreme). The practice seems to be to set 5 to 10 or so personality traits per character.
Lastly, characters have attributes and skills -- both rated on a 1.0 to 10.0 scale. There is a lot of space spent on how to define the 1-10 scales for each campaign and uses of it. However, this is actually fairly insignificant to game-play. The numbers are never used in any mathematical calculation or die roll. Players can set their stats to whatever number they want, and the only use for the number in play is as a freeform guide to the GM for his decisions. There are six attributes: Strength, Stamina, Coordination, Intellect, Intuition, and Presence. Skills are freeform, with a list of 120 skill names as a guide.
Since attributes and skills are set at player's discretion, Theatrix throws away the principle of game balance per se. While in most systems all beginning players have roughly the same numerical "power", Theatrix instead differentiates PCs primarily by their Descriptors, Personality Traits, and Plot Points. Plot Points in theory allow each PC to regularly grab the spotlight, so that a high trait value arms race is not necessary. This is sometimes called called balancing "spotlight time" rather than balancing power.
My thoughts on character creation:
As mentioned, the standard resolution in Theatrix is diceless. This is guided by one of a series of flowcharts, which are included as cardstock sheets with the game. There is one generic flowchart for all actions, and four ones geared for types of activities: Athletic, Combat, Intellectual, and Interpersonal. The questions of the flowchart are more of drama than stats: i.e. "Does the Plotline require some particular Outcome?" and "Release the Tension or Let them Struggle?"
The basic idea is that drama should be the primary guide to success or failure, for dramatic situations. The GM (aka Director) controls this. Theatrix states on p. 66:" We feel that the director is fully adequate to the task of determining the success or and failure of ALL actions within the chronicle, without reference to a die roll." However, character skill levels and situation determine the type of success or failure. A skilled person who fails will do so because of extenuating circumstances which would have been disastrous for anyone else, whereas an unskilled person will embarrass himself by flubbing it even though everything went her way.
Another feature of the flowchart system is that it encourages looking at how long it takes to see the result, and what the result means for further actions. Actions can results in "False Hope" or "Uncertain Victory" -- where the result only shows up later. They also encourage previous results to affect later resolution.
Improvisation & Plot Points
I have already mentioned Plot Points, but Theatrix goes further than simply spending points for successes. It encourages players to freely "improvise" elements of the stage, i.e. the scene the characters are walking around in. Thus, the player may simply say that he finds a gun in a drawer. However, unless the player spends a Plot Point and has a relevant Descriptor, the GM can establish that it is unloaded or just a cigarette lighter.
Improvisation can do more than just minor props, however. An example from the book is that the players are creeping into a dragons cave, hearing its growling and feeling the heat of it just around the corner. At this point, a player improvises that he jumps around the corner and discovers the diabolical machine creating the hoax. This seems pretty highly controversial -- but one should remember that reversals like this are a matter for the group. If the players don't like this sort of twist, then they won't make them up and will hopefully pressure a rebellious player into cooperating.
An important element of improvisation is players introducing subplots. Subplots are introduced by a player through Improvisation, as well as GM-ed by a player (using what it calls "Distributed Directing"). While there is only one GM ("Director") for the Main Plot, players can take charge of various subplots. So if your character wants to have a love affair, or wants to improve one of his traits or skill, he simply invents a subplot for it. Subplots can be the minor problem that make the character come alive aside from the main plot, or lasting problems of the characters which do not have a thing to do with the focus of the current plot.
The main problem of this chapter are not the things discussed therein, but the lack of guidelines on how to apply these possibilities in a game. Improvisation is properly defined, and there are rules on how to keep improvisation under control and even a number of examples. But all this works on a very abstract level and even if you explain the possibilities to the players, they still have no idea of their true power. Introducing subplots and plot twists can be pretty daunting for players.
As mentioned earlier, Theatrix suggests a model of preparation where the GM creates a structured plot. This is based closely on movie screenwriting theory, specifically the books of Syd Field. It explains at least some of the logic behind the model. Each story is broken into three acts: but these have a midpoint as well as two "pinch" points. There is merit in this, but it is distinctively a part of Hollywood movies. If those aren't what you are trying for, then this may be of limited use.
The idea is for the GM to prepare a unified story with a driving force behind it, rather than a series of plot segments. Their logic is that this actually promotes flexibility in the plot. If the GM know what the story is fundamentally about, it is easier for her to change details to match improvisations in play. The authors also actually encourage the use of cliches. To them, the flexibility and unity of story provide the fun. Even if a cliched story might be weak on the screen, it is fun to play through interactively.
Unfortunately, the most damning aspect of the Theatrix book is its sample Mini-Adventure. The adventure as outlined is sufficiently awful that by itself it makes me question much of the advice given in the rest of the book. I can only hope that it was a last-minute addition. It is painfully cliched, a thin plot about going to defeat the evil Nazi Uber-Zeppelin.
Theatrix is certainly thought-provoking and different. Even if straight play using these rules is not your cup of tea, it may be enlightening to read or play in a brief game of it. By making common GM fudges into codified rules, it sheds new light on them. However, there are limitations to the approach. Even if you are focused on role-playing for dramatic/cinematic storytelling, the system might not be ideal -- but then again it might be.
Theatrix itself advocates the use of cliche, and is designed for mainstream Hollywood movie genres like action films, police dramas, and pulp adventure. That is by no means the limit of the mechanics. However, there are some limitations to keep in mind.